There are a few things we know about President Obama’s pick for Surgeon General, Regina Benjamin. She is a well-respected family practice doctor, the winner of a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant, and the first black woman to head a state medical association in the U.S. She is the founder of a medical clinic in rural Bayou La Batre, Alabama, where many of the patients are poor, uninsured and unable to pay their bills--and Benjamin is known for treating them anyway.
She is also a very different type of choice from Sanjay Gupta, the neurosurgeon and CNN correspondent who was offered the job but withdrew from consideration in March. But, with all due respect to Gupta, this may be a good thing.
Historically, the role of surgeon general has been mostly ceremonial. Research and support are left to the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while the small surgeon general’s office is used to convey health messages to the public. Gupta seemed well-suited to such a role.
But Benjamin has something he doesn’t: a record of working with the poor and uninsured. Not coincidentally, these are among the people whom Obama’s health care reform plans will help the most. Much has been made--already--of Benjamin’s health clinic, which she built and then rebuilt twice, once after Hurricane Katrina and again after a fire. She thanked Obama for putting health care at the top of his agenda at a press conference today, saying, “[o]ur health care system simply cannot continue on the path that we're on.”
Benjamin also has a record of talking up the importance of preventative measures, such as nutrition and exercise. At today’s press conference, she spoke about her family’s experiences with diseases such as HIV, cancer, and diabetes.
The most influential surgeon generals have been those with specific policy agendas. C. Everett Koop, a conservative who was surgeon general for most of the 1980s, used his position to advocate for sex education and HIV/AIDS research. David Satcher, who was surgeon general from 1998 to 2001, was notable for calling attention to mental health issues and the need to de-stigmatize mental illnesses. It's easy to imagine Benjamin fulfilling a similar role in the Obama administration, using her position to advocate preventative measures and improvements to the health care system.
And not to be overly opportunistic about this, but Benjamin's appointment does have a certain political utility for the reform debate. It’s no coincidence that Obama spent the first half of his press conference reaffirming his commitment to passing health care reform legislation, then moved on to discussing an appointee who worked with the same types of people his plans are meant to protect. At a time when the uninsured are so important a part of the health care debate, it seems fitting that Obama would take the appointment of the surgeon general to remind us why.